How to Set Environment Variable in Mac Terminal

Nicholas Russell
By Nicholas Russell 13 Min Read
13 Min Read

Hey! ๐Ÿ‘‹ I’ve been tinkering with command line interfaces like Mac Terminal for quite a while, and today, I’m here to guide you through setting up environment variables in a way that’s as easy as pie.

So, you might be wondering, why bother with environment variables? Well, think of them as magical shortcuts that save you from the hassle of remembering long strings of characters and numbers. Plus, they come in handy when you need to set paths and parameters for specific apps.

Alright, let’s get hands-on! To set an environment variable, we’re going to use the export command. It’s like casting a spell in the command line world. Here’s the enchanted formula:

export VARIABLE=value

Simple, right? Replace VARIABLE with the name of your variable and value with, well, the value you want. It’s like telling your computer, “Hey, remember this for me, okay?”

Now, why do we use the export command? Well, it’s like giving a green light to your system, telling it that this variable is ready for action. Without export, it’s like having a magic wand but forgetting to say the spell out loud.

Curious about what’s already in your wizard’s toolkit? No worries! I’ll also show you how to list all the current variables in your magical environment. It’s like peeking into Hermione’s bottomless bag to see what she’s got in there.

But wait, there’s more! I’ll spill the beans on why using environment variables is pure wizardry. It’s not just about making your life easier; it’s about making your computer do tricks for you.

So, stick around if you want to level up your command line game! I’m here to make it as simple as casting spells at Hogwarts. ๐Ÿช„

Setting an Environment Variable

Alright, fellow explorer! Buckle up because we’re about to unravel the mysteries of setting environment variables. ๐Ÿ•ต๏ธโ€โ™‚๏ธ

Imagine an environment variable as a secret note that you pass around within your computer’s secret club. It’s a value that hangs out in the background, ready to assist whenever your computer is up and running.

Setting the Stage: The Export Command

Now, here’s the magic wand – the export command! To create an environment variable, it’s as simple as casting a spell. Check this out:

export VARIABLE=value

Let’s break it down. You’re telling your computer, “Hey, remember this special thing called VARIABLE, and make it equal to value.” Easy peasy, right?

Let’s Play with an Example: MYVAR

Picture this: you want an environment variable named MYVAR, and you want it to greet you with a friendly “hello.” Here’s the command incantation:

export MYVAR=hello

Voila! Now, MYVAR is all set to spread warmth and cheer wherever it goes.

Why Not Just Set it Without the Export Command?

Ah, good question! You could just tell your computer, “Hey, make VARIABLE equal to value,” but here’s the catch. Without the export command, your variable becomes a bit of a loner, only existing in its own little world. No other app, script, or user can join the party.

Enter the export command, our hero! It’s like sending out invitations to a grand bash. With export, your variable becomes the life of the party, mingling with all processes and child processes. It’s the superstar of the computing world.

You’re not limited to setting variables just in the command line. Oh no! You can do it in scripts, programming languages, and even in special files like * .zshrc* or * .zprofile* in your home directory.

These files are like backstage passes at a concert. They get things rolling when your terminal session starts. For instance, they might set the mood with a custom prompt (PROMPT variable) or point the way with the PATH variable, crucial for finding commands or apps when you type them in.

Why the PATH Variable is a Big Deal

Speaking of PATH, it’s the GPS for your computer commands. It guides your system to the right spot when you call out a command. Without it, your computer might be wandering in the dark, unable to find what you’re looking for.

And there you have it, the lowdown on setting environment variables. Stay tuned for more magical adventures in the world of tech wonders!

Displaying the Value of the Environment Variable

Great job on setting those environment variables! Now, let’s shed some light on how to reveal their secrets. ๐ŸŒŸ

Peekaboo! Show Me the Value

So, you’re curious about the value of your environment variable, huh? No problemo! We’ll use the echo statement to make your variable spill the beans. Check this out:


See that little dollar sign ($) in front of VARIABLE? It’s like your way of saying, “Hey system, I want to see what’s inside this magical box!”

Example Time: Hello, MYVAR!

Let’s say you’ve got a friendly variable called MYVAR that says “hello.” To see what it’s all about, you’d use:

echo $MYVAR

And there you have it! Your computer obediently spills out “hello” for the world to see.

Why the Dollar Sign Drama?

You might be wondering, why the drama with the dollar sign? Well, that’s the secret handshake with the system. When you put a $ in front of the variable, it’s like telling your computer, “I’m not just mentioning MYVAR, I want to see what’s inside it!”

How to Display the Current Environment Variables

Welcome back, intrepid explorer! Now that you’ve mastered the art of setting and showing off your environment variables, it’s time to uncover the ones that are already hanging out in your computer’s secret hideout.

The Startup Magic

So, every time you fire up your Terminal, your computer already has a bunch of environment variables on standby. Some are born and bred there, while others might have been invited to the party by you using the export command.

Curiosity Strikes: What’s Already Here?

Now, you might be itching to know who’s who in this secret environment variable club. Good news! There’s a command called env that acts like a spotlight, revealing all the hidden stars and their values. Just type:


Hit that return key, and boom! Your screen transforms into a treasure map of environment variables and their secret codes.

Making Sense of the Scroll

As the list scrolls by, you’ll see variable names and their accompanying values. It’s like peeking into a wizard’s spellbook, discovering the incantations that keep your computer’s magic alive.

Pro Tip: The Power of Observation

Take a moment to observe. You’ll likely spot variables with names like HOME and USER. These are like VIPs in the world of environment variables, holding crucial information about your system.

Knowing your environment variables is like having a map to navigate the magical realm of your computer. It can be super handy, especially when you’re troubleshooting or just curious about what makes your system tick.

So, next time you’re wondering about the secret agents working behind the scenes in your computer, just type env and let the magic unfold.

Stay tuned for more tips and tricks as we continue our journey through the tech wonderland


Well, fellow adventurer, you’ve successfully navigated the enchanting world of environment variables! Let’s recap our journey through the realms of the Terminal on your trusty Mac.

In the grand scheme of things, environment variables are like the unsung heroes behind the scenes of your Terminal adventures. They’re not just for show; other applications and even the mighty macOS itself rely on them to keep the magic flowing smoothly.

Ever found yourself drowning in a sea of data or parameters while typing commands? Fear not! Environment variables swoop in like the superhero sidekicks, making your life easier and your commands snappier.

Remember the incantation: export is your go-to spell for setting and changing environment variables. Want to bid farewell to a variable? That’s where unset steps in. It’s like the cleanup crew for your magical command world.

Whether you’re in the command line, scripting away, or cooking up some code, you can set environment variables wherever your heart desires. It’s your way of leaving a mark on the magical land of computing.

Environment variables might seem like mere strings of characters and numbers, but treat them with respect. They’re the secret sauce that keeps the tech universe ticking. ๐ŸŒŒ

As our adventure through the Terminal realms comes to a close, remember this: the knowledge of environment variables is your key to unlocking new levels of wizardry in the tech wonderland. Stay curious, keep tinkering, and let the magic of code guide you to even greater heights!

Until our next quest, happy coding! ๐Ÿš€๐Ÿ”ฎ


What are environment variables, and why are they important when working with the Terminal on a Mac?

Environment variables are like behind-the-scenes settings that hold information for your computer. They are crucial for various applications, including the Terminal on a Mac, to function smoothly. They simplify commands and are used by both applications and the macOS itself.

How do I set an environment variable in the Mac Terminal?

Setting an environment variable is as simple as using the export command. In the Terminal, you type export VARIABLE=value, replacing VARIABLE with your chosen name and value with the desired content. This allows the variable to be accessible to all processes and child processes running.

Why is the export command recommended when setting environment variables?

The export command is recommended because it extends the variable’s availability to all processes and child processes. Without export, the variable would only exist within the thread it is created, making it inaccessible to applications, scripts, or users.

How can I display the value of an environment variable in the Terminal?

You can use the echo statement followed by the variable name prefixed with a dollar sign. For instance, to display the value of a variable named MYVAR, you would use the command echo $MYVAR.

What’s the significance of the env command, and how can it be used?

The env command helps you view all current environment variables and their values. By typing env in the Terminal and hitting the return key, you get a comprehensive list of environment variables, offering insight into the inner workings of your system.

Can environment variables be modified or removed after they are set?

Yes, environment variables can be changed using the export command to assign a new value. To remove a variable, the unset command can be employed. This flexibility allows users to adapt and tailor their environment variables as needed.

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